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27th Annual SCUTREA conference proceedings 1997

Crossing borders, breaking boundaries : Research in the education of adults

Beyond facilitation in adult education: power dynamics in teaching and learning practices

Juanita Johnson-Bailey and Ronald M. Cervero, University of Georgia, USA

The idea of the teacher as a facilitator is a hallmark of adult education (Apps 1991; Brookfield 1995; Knowles 1992). This central principle charges adult educators to go beyond the role that the teacher takes in traditional classroom settings and stipulates the need to treat adults as equals in the classroom. Yet, it is clear that facilitation does not occur on a neutral stage, but in the real world of hierarchical power relations among all of the adults, including teachers and learners. When learners and teachers enter classrooms they bring their positions in the hierarchies that order the world, including those based on race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and disability. Because the social context is duplicated in the microcosm of the classroom (Johnson-Bailey and Cervero 1996; Tisdell 1993), enacting the facilitation role will reproduce the power structures that privilege some, silence some, and deny the existence of other learners (hooks 1994; Maher and Tetreault 1994). If all learners are to thrive, adult educators must go beyond the facilitator's role to directly negotiate the power dynamics in the classroom. Some theorists have recognised these issues (Brookfield 1995; Tisdell 1995), and others have begun to call for reconstructing the image of the adult educator as facilitator (Boud and Miller 1996; Shor 1996).

Theoretical perspective: are adult education classes the real world?

Nearly all discussions of teaching in adult education simply avoid this question (Knowles 1980). In this script for teaching adults, we are presented with the unspoken assumption that the activity must happen in a parallel universe to the real world because the power relationships that are omnipresent in the social and organisational settings of everyday life have been obliterated. By stripping learners and teachers of their place in the hierarchies of social life, this view assumes we stage adult education where the politics of everyday life do not operate or matter. This view asks us to see teachers and learners as generic entities, unencumbered by the hierarchies that structure our social relationships.

Another answer to the question is that adult education is not exactly the real world, and this is precisely what contributes to its effectiveness. Sork (1984, 7) argues that the:

participant is both an emigrant and an immigrant. He or she temporarily leaves one environment or social system and temporarily enters another. Although a certain amount of environmental baggage always accompanies learners, removing them from their natural setting for the time of the program isolates them from distractions and day-to-day concerns and enables then to concentrate on the problem at hand.

In contrast to Knowles, this view recognises that people cannot shed their 'environmental baggage' when they are in an educational setting. Nevertheless, this baggage is not seen as a source of insights for teaching. The emphasis is on creating a new environment where these factors will not get in the way of effective learning. This view asks us to see that teachers and learners are not generic individuals (we all have environmental baggage).

Our view is that adult education must be the real world because the power relationships that structure our social lives cannot possibly be checked at the classroom door. There is no magical transformation that occurs as teachers and learners step across the threshold of the classroom. McIntosh (1995) also uses the baggage metaphor by discussing White privilege and male privilege as important socially-structured power relationships that affect our lives in and out of educational settings; these privileges are an 'invisible weightless knapsack (italics added) of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes compass, emergency gear, and blank checks' that can be used in any situation in people's everyday lives. Some of McIntosh's (a White woman) examples that are relevant to educational settings include: 1) I can be fairly sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race, 2) I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group, and 3) If I have low credibility as a leader, I can be sure that my race is not the problem. McIntosh's analysis can be extended to include other ways that power structures our social relations, such as class, age, ability/disability, sexual orientation, and organisational position. This view asks us to see teachers and learners not as generic individuals but rather as people who have differential capacities to act (our definition of power) based on their place in the hierarchies of our social world.

A number of writers have begun to explore power dynamics in adult education classrooms, primarily focusing on issues of race, class, and gender (Colin and Preciphs 1991; Collard and Stalker 1991; Johnson-Bailey and Cervero 1996; Luttrell 1993; Sheared 1994; Tisdell 1993, 1995). These authors generally share the view captured by Collard and Stalker (1991, 72): 'Women's experiences in the learning environments of educational institutions cannot be separated from their experiences within the larger society'. Sheared (1994, 28) further explains that the: 'the womanist perspective seeks to expose the differences and similarities that human beings experience in the classroom as a result of skin colour, language, economic status, and personal experiences'. Although there is an increasing literature base on this topic, Tisdell (1995, 89) concludes that the research literature does not adequately address 'how systems of privilege and oppression are played out in the learning environment, or exactly what pedagogical strategies lead to individual and social transformation'. The purpose of this paper is to reconstruct the image of the adult educator as facilitator to one of a teacher who negotiates classroom power dynamics.

Research design and data collection

The design for this study was a qualitative comparative case study (Bogdan and Biklen 1992) of two graduate courses taught by the authors of this paper. Each class was taught in the same university, was of the same length (10 weeks), and met one night a week. One class in which 12 students were enrolled, 'Critical Perspectives on Adult Education', was taught by a White male professor. The other in which 19 students were enrolled, 'Qualitative Research in Education', was taught by a Black woman assistant professor. The three data sources included students' written (anonymous) evaluations at the end of the course, each teacher's observations of the course, and interviews of the teachers and students in the classes. Immediately following the courses' completion, each teacher interviewed the other about the power dynamics in their classes. During the final class session, each professor went to the other's class to solicit students to be interviewed. Seven students from each class were interviewed after the course's completion using a set of questions that indirectly addressed power issues. After each professor read the masked transcripts about their own classes, they interviewed each other again. Risk was inherent in this study not only for the students who volunteered but for the teachers who would hear what their students thought about their classes. Because risk was a dominant factor in this study, it was addressed at several points including at the solicitation for student interviews and in the human subjects form.


The themes of mastery, voice, authority, and positionality found in previous research on classroom power dynamics (Maher and Tetreault 1994) were used to organise the results from this study of two adult education classrooms.


Student and teacher interviews revealed that power dynamics were inherent in each class and, more importantly, revealed that these dynamics had a direct impact on students' learning. These dynamics negated the learning in some cases and in other cases 'empowered' students to learn on a deeper level. This was especially evident in the issue of mastery of the class material. A student in the adult education seminar class implied that his fellow students' lack of interest in certain areas kept him from acquiring the theoretical base he had hoped to obtain from this class: 'I just constantly said that this is the syndrome for the social sciences in the U.S. I think people are not forced to address the theories. (They seem to say) 'It's the dead White man's theories, forget it'.' So his analysis was that he did not learn what he could have because students in the class brought in their 'baggage' and entrenched themselves in single issue 'camps' along agenda lines of race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability.

Students in the qualitative research class also indicated that their mastery of the material was affected by the political needs of one student. They reported being negatively impacted in the learning environment when a student dominated the class discourse and the teacher did not interfere. One student said: 'There was one quantitative White woman in the class, young, beautiful White woman with a whiny voice. And she would take issue with everything. She was like a thorn'. This student went on to explain how she would shut down when this woman would attempt to take over from the teacher and that no matter what was said, 'I just wouldn't write it down'. Echoing her experiences another student said:

I mean we had one person in particular...she was very heavily embedded in the quantitative paradigm. (She was) fairly vocal about her criticisms. She drove the rest of us crazy (in the beginning)...But the group process eventually shut her down a bit. She eventually calmed down and seemed to enjoy the class.

One Black male from the qualitative research class spoke directly of how his ability to grasp the course content was directly connected to his overall class experience: 'I felt empowered in this class...I am walking away from this class with renewed energy. Saying, 'You know what? I can do this. Once you apply yourself, it is not difficult for you to master it'.'


The ability to speak in class emerged as an important issue. Participants spoke about the positive and important feeling of being free to speak out in class and express their opinions. Additionally, students were attentive to who spoke the most in class, especially when they felt it interfered with their right to voice. In the seminar class students varied in their opinions of who talked the most and who might have been the class leaders. This indicated that the opportunity for expression varied enough so that students were unable to identify any one person as dominating the dialogue. However, the students in the research class identified one student who particularly took up more than her fair share of class time. One participant said:

There was one woman who took up quite a bit of (the teacher's) time with private meetings because she was just so grateful to get some kind of feedback...(The teacher) was conscious of this and tried to balance it. (The student) had a lot to say in class but it was usually a beneficial contribution, so it wasn't disturbing.

Another participant described this same student as an 'accessory to (the teacher's) power' because she participated more in class discussions and was always eager to and encouraged to speak. He stated that she 'was used (by the teacher) to move issues along in class'. This participant said that the student had been seemingly designated by the teacher as a class leader and this encouraged other students to 'withdraw.'

Expressing similar sentiments, other students linked their ability to speak out to being sanctioned by the teacher. A Black male participant in the adult education seminar remarked that he felt so supported in the open environment that was nurtured by his professor that he was very revealing about his personal life:

I think that he (the professor) believes he has a lot of privilege because he is a White man. And he seeks to understand that...and part of understanding that is learning why persons who are not White males feel the way that they do. I am gay...And I never verbalised that before in front of people who weren't my friends. So that was a scary but comfortable was a profound moment of class for me.


This theme addresses who had the power in the classroom. In traditional academic settings, it is assumed that the professor has the ability to control and to shape the environment more than any other single person. However, the adult education literature asserts that the art of facilitation which is the basis of andragogical practice mitigates such issues. The participants in both classes and the teachers felt that there were many definite instances where power was seized, negotiated, and forfeited in the classroom. In the adult education class several students felt that the White male professor possessed the power 'by default' even though it was a seminar where students were given the opportunity to design and govern the class. According to their interviews, the professor as agreed during the planning stages for the class was not to act in the traditional role of class leader. However, there was one instance where the professor assumed authority for a 'controversial situation' that was occurring in class. He intervened when a helper assigned by the Office of Disability Services for a student with visual impairment became involved in an unusually heated class discussion. The participants divided along racial lines over the appropriateness of his insistence that the disability worker not speak in class. Several of the White women in the class felt that he had 'hurt' the woman's feelings while others applauded his actions. One Black woman student offered the analysis that the White women in the class seemed to feel that it was culturally incorrect for the male professor to be firm with this young White woman student.

In the research class one common issue around authority was repeated by several students. It centred on a male student who openly challenged his Black female professor. Another male student related his discomfort in watching the exchange:

He stood there for a long time and was challenging the professor...She talked to the person about why she (thought his answer on the exam was wrong). She allowed the person to talk for a long time. Then she said let's discuss this after class...I was taken aback by his confrontational manner and maybe other people felt the same way. We were listening and looking at the exchange.


This theme addresses how the cultures, genders, races, ages, and sexual orientations of the teachers and students act and interact in the classroom environment. These positionalities more than any other factor dictate learning and patterns of classroom behaviour (Maher and Tetrault 1994). Two salient examples of student and teacher positionality are reported here. In the seminar class, the professor had the students perform an exercise where they created a class hierarchy ranking their classmates according to their perception of how they were classified in society. One Black woman student recounted this incident as a very painful one for a White woman student who dropped considerably in hierarchical status when she revealed that she was a lesbian:

After she came out in class she was always ranked with me. She lost her privilege and it bothered her. She told me that she would never have come out if she had known that it was going to put her down there with me. I told her, 'It was okay to be down here'.

The incident involving the confrontation over the exam that occurred in the research class gives a clear example of how the position of the professor can impact the student/teacher interactions. One student analysed the situation succinctly:

...if I had a problem I would definitely talk to the professor but definitely not in a confrontational manner...There are groups of people who are marginalised in our society. And we know that females are marginalised and of course Black people are. I don't know if that was the person's reason for doing that but I wonder if this person would have challenged a White male the way he challenged her.

This student's analysis is probably correct because it was corroborated by the student who confronted the Black woman assistant professor. He explained that he felt 'kind of funny in class because he was surrounded by women that believe that feminism is something they have to go for'. He further explained that the female professor was 'dominant' in the classroom and that in his culture women are 'ornamental.' Another analysis of this situation was revealed by a third student who felt that it was wrong of the student to challenge the professor in an openly hostile manner but who also felt that the professor should not have been firm with him in front of the class. However, her sentiments reveal that she also felt uncomfortable with the woman professor's reactions which were assertive rather than nurturing. The student's questioning of the 'appropriateness' of the exchange placed the blame on the professor even though the male student was insistently confrontational and despite the fact that the teacher requested that they talk after class.


This study showed the many complex ways in which the power relations in the larger society are played out in adult education classrooms and directly influence the teaching and learning process. Students in both classes were very conscious of how the classroom organised around power relationships. They monitored both teachers' behaviours and exchanges with other students. This was typified by a student in the seminar class who felt that one student in the class attempted to always 'sit next to him (the professor) as if that would give her a position of power'. All the students interviewed in the research class talked about one student who took up more than her fair share of class time. One participant stated: 'there was one girl who took up quite a bit of class time and (the teacher) was conscious of that...and tried to balance it'. A second student also took note of the teacher's attempt to balance the vocal student's class comments and observed that after a while the outspoken student understood what the teacher was attempting and would try to monitor herself and would make apologetic comments such as 'well this is my last question, but'.

The students' experiences evidence a tendency to want an interactive classroom where teachers attend to issues of who talks the most and who listens the most. The students interviewed were aware of how the classroom worked and where they stood in terms of power. In the seminar class the students expressed an interest in wanting more 'mediating' by the professor. Although the students in the research class described the overall atmosphere as positive and democratic where 'everyone was allowed to express their opinions', they still said that they experienced uncomfortable moments regarding how the power was negotiated by the teacher.

Both classes clearly wanted direction for the teachers and also wanted classroom power dynamics arbitrated, but varied along individual and cultural lines as to their definitions of the ideal. The traditional purveyors of power in classroom settings, White males, communicated a greater comfort level in a 'facilitation model' than the White males in the research class where the dynamics were mediated by the teacher. This is understandable given that the 'facilitation model' would reinforce their place of dominance in the classroom hierarchy. However, the element of positionality must be factored into the study. The students felt that the White male professor did not have an agenda in the seminar class which dealt with issues of race, class, and gender. Yet, they repeatedly referred to the Black woman professor who taught the research class as having a political agenda. Such an analysis does not logically fit the situations and thus we attribute this to the students' perception of the Black woman as a gendered and racialised figure and their perception of the White male professor as a traditional objective disseminator of knowledge without a race, gender, or class position in society. The students wanted more direction from the male professor yet referred to the attempts by the female teacher to make the learning environment participatory with negative comments.

This study showed that the adult education classroom is not the neutral educational site referred to in the literature. Instead it is a duplication of the existing societal relations of power replete with hierarchies and privileges conferred along lines of gender, race, class, sexual orientation and other status markers. The study also suggests that the perspective seen by the teacher is one that is visually impaired by their own viewpoint. During the study, the professors involved practised cultural therapy by examining and discussing their own cultural assumptions and by providing an analysis of what was occurring in the classroom. While many of their suppositions proved consistent with students' views, especially regarding uncomfortable classroom issues, other incidents that seemed trivial to the professors were significant to the students. This would suggest that positionality is a critical lens for interpreting adult education classroom experiences. In sum, we conclude that the facilitation model does not account for the many power dynamics in these classrooms. We suggest further efforts are needed to better understand how societal power relations affect teaching and learning efforts and what responses educators can make to negotiate these issues responsibly.


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